In Other Words

Doing Well By Doing Good

Good, Issue 4, May/June 2007, Los Angeles

It has all the makings of a classic Hollywood story. Young man tragically loses both parents to cancer. Young man graduates from Ivy League college and goes west to make movies. He decides he wants to change the world in a different way instead. Fortunately, young man is already very, very rich, thanks to his magazine mogul father. But money isn't the only legacy his father leaves; he also bequeaths an entrepreneurial zeal for risk-taking. So, young man does what he knows best. He decides to bankroll a magazine.

This is the story of 27-year-old Ben Goldhirsh -- scion of Bernard Goldhirsh, the founder of the business glossy Inc. -- and his magazine, a slick bimonthly of politics, culture, and hot products aimed at earnest college grads still lured by print in a virtual age. Launched in September 2006 and branded with the moniker Good, the magazine’s intentions are, well, good (as its cover proudly boasts, "for people who give a damn"). In his first founder's note, Goldhirsh suggested that he brought Good to the world to "add value," because "today's media is taking up our space, dumbing us down, and impeding our productivity." But don’t mistake his publication for a magazine designed for do-gooders who like to rail against corporate America, meat eaters, and Dick Cheney. No, Good wants to be the reading material of choice for folks who want to make the world a better place, but without giving up their iPhones and Xboxes. Good is about compassionate consumerism, technology with taste, and environmentalism with a healthy dose of entertainment. Twenty-first-century hip, declares Good, doesn’t have to be hypocritical.

In many ways, its mission has hit a nerve. After all, well-educated young Americans want little more than to be validated in their quest to be responsible global citizens, without having to give up the trappings of the good life. On a newsstand crowded with celebrity glossies and their parents' newsweeklies, Good stands out as an ambitious, well-designed, general-interest magazine that simultaneously seeks to educate and entertain. Not many magazines can get away with, as the May/June issue does, an eight-page primer on Kim Jong Il and his Hermit Kingdom with the snappy headline, "Li'l Kim" and a timeline charting Bono's acts of humanitarianism alongside his changing taste in sunglasses. In the process of bringing a slice of the world to its readers, Good also aims to create a sensibility for them. For starters, carbon offsetting is good. So is civic involvement, and caring about Darfur. The May/June issue also features profiles of a New York academic who prescribes art projects for environmental health maladies, a conservative preacher's wife who encourages churches to distribute HIV/AIDS medications to Africans, and a scientist who convinced Wal-Mart to try to sell one energy-efficient fluorescent lightbulb to each of its customers -- all 100 million of them.

But because this is a magazine for affluent, urban 20- and 30-somethings, goods -- designer clothes, high-tech gadgets, modern furnishings -- are also good. The Marketplace section of each issue is devoted to feeding that youthful appetite for material items that allow their collectors to maintain their hipster credentials while resting assured that no animals were harmed in the process. The Good imprimatur makes it acceptable to wear those new Nikes (never mind the child labor of yore; proceeds help fund education programs), to have another round of shots (organic, of course), and to splurge on that $1,300 desk chair (it's made from recycled materials). It's not just the editorial content that feeds materialism. Good's advertisers include not only the Save Darfur campaign but also fashion designer Marc Jacobs and the über-trendy Fred Segal boutique in Santa Monica. Evidently, it's perfectly fine to be a capitalist, as long as you're being "good" about it.

That's partly where the magazine's business model comes in. For $20, subscribers receive six issues, daily online exclusives, and invitations to conferences, free concerts, and block parties. Yet, not a single cent of subscription revenue goes to the magazine. Instead, readers choose from among 12 different nonprofit organizations, ranging from Teach for America to the World Wildlife Fund, to receive the subscription fee instead. After a year on the newsstand, the magazine boasts roughly 19,000 subscribers, with more than $380,000 already donated to charity. But how does the magazine stay afloat? It's not just a rich-kid vanity project. True, Goldhirsh has invested a dollar figure he puts in the "single-digit millions" into Good. But he claims that his venture is nearly breaking even due to all that lucrative advertising.

The magazine hasn't just grabbed the brass ring financially; it's reached great editorial success as well. A skeleton crew of two has blossomed into a staff of 30, with half working on Web and video platforms to create content that complements the magazine. The associate publisher is none other than Al Gore III, son of the former U.S. vice president, which lends Good some environmental cachet. And a steady stream of all-stars have graced the magazine's pages with their work, from Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter and New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki to economist Jeffrey Sachs and the late writer Kurt Vonnegut. Such a roster of notable authors would be a success story for any publication, but it's particularly impressive for a magazine that's only a year out of the gate.

It would be easy to dismiss Good as a magazine for well-heeled whiners who prefer their serious subjects packaged with flashy visuals and a thumping beat, à la MTV. But that characterization doesn't give sufficient credit to the sincere, and often endearing, curiosity that lies at the heart of what it is trying to accomplish. Ultimately, Good's editors, like many young idealists living in a prosperous age, want a place at the table. They want to reshape national discourse. There's just no reason not to do it in style.

Goldhirsh finds it easiest to explain his mission by likening his magazine to the media influences of an earlier generation. "We're closer to the old Esquire than we are to Utne," he explains, referring to the former's heady decade in the 1960s under Editor Harold T.P. Hayes, whose run, according to Good's March/April 2007 media issue, made the Esquire of that age the best magazine of all time. In the homage, the editors wrote that it "visually and literarily alter[ed] the way Americans thought about their changing country." In other words, it was a magazine for a country coming of age. And there's something very Good about that.

In Other Words

Muckraking in Manila

When midterm elections were held in the Philippines in May, the media scrutinized the process more closely than usual. In the aftermath of the previous national elections in 2004, the president herself, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had been accused of rigging the results. This time around, her ruling party faced similar allegations of vote tampering, particularly in Maguindanao, an impoverished southern province governed by a close ally of the president. Arroyo's party declared that its candidates had won a sweeping victory within the province of 12 open senate seats because most of the opposition candidates had, incredibly, received zero votes. At such a ludicrous claim, the opposition coalition cried foul and demanded that the election results be investigated.

The Philippine press pounced on the story. Among the media outlets reporting from Maguindanao was the Web magazine Newsbreak. Its coverage of the scandal chronicled how the provincial election supervisor mysteriously lost the official paperwork with the municipal tallies. The national elections commission appointed a special task force that eventually unearthed duplicate voting rolls. But it forbade opposition party lawyers from examining the copies, and declared the initial election results to be valid. Still, no one doubted that there had been some kind of double-dealing. Newsbreak visited a neighboring province, where sources described how regional politicians from all parties regularly bribed voters and stuffed ballot boxes.

Keeping the government in check is a point of pride for the feisty Philippine press, which has played an important role in the country's transition to democracy. When then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he shut down all of the nation's television stations and newspapers. He eventually allowed a few to reopen under strict control of his regime. Even then, he didn’t hesitate to throw newsmen -- and they were almost always men -- into jail if their reporting angered him. But a generation of courageous female journalists took their imprisoned colleagues' place, and began to expose Marcos's dictatorial ways. Their collective editorial voices became stronger as the dictator grew weaker, and when Marcos was finally deposed in the "People Power" revolt of 1986, a robust journalistic community stood ready to take advantage of its newfound liberties.

Not surprisingly, political corruption didn't disappear. In fact, it was a corruption scandal that had forced Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada, to step down from office. And it was, in part, to expose such dangers to the country's young democracy that Newsbreak was born. Launched as an English-language newsweekly in 2001, just as Arroyo was sworn into office, the first issue of the magazine celebrated the end of Estrada's unscrupulous presidency and heralded the triumph of the second so-called People Power revolt. But that optimism quickly unraveled. Corruption, it seemed, was embedded in the seat of Philippine power, no matter who was president. For the next several years, Newsbreak gained a reputation for its dogged investigative reporting and lively attacks on the malfeasance of the Philippines' holy trinity: politics, the military, and the Catholic Church.

Arroyo's moral fiber appeared to be as unreliable as her predecessors'. She twice faced impeachment proceedings because of her role in the 2004 election scandal. Among other questionable decisions, she declared a state of emergency in early 2006 when a supposed plan for a military coup was uncovered. Arroyo invoked her emergency powers by authorizing warrantless arrests and, for the first time since the Marcos regime, shutting down the office of a newspaper critical of her leadership. But other publications such as Newsbreak continued to report on her tenuous hold on power. "It is important for us to show that Mrs. Arroyo is very vulnerable to influences of politicians because she plays patronage politics," says Marites Vitug, Newsbreak's founding editor. "We're always interested in the power structure, in politicians who are perceived to influence policy, but not for public interest."

A dislike for the press seems to run in Arroyo's family. In November 2003, Newsbreak published a report alleging that the president and her husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, owned property in San Francisco that they had not declared in their official statement of assets. A few months later, the first gentleman filed a libel suit against Newsbreak. It was one out of 11 libel cases that he has filed against a whopping 46 journalists in the past six years. He only dropped the cases earlier this year, out of self-proclaimed magnanimity, after he underwent heart surgery.

The first gentleman isn't the only one of Arroyo's allies to strike back at Newsbreak's editors. In a series of articles published two years ago, the magazine reported that Luis "Chavit" Singson, a long-time governor of a northern coastal province, was growing closer to Arroyo and amassing even greater wealth under her rule, even while the people in his province remained poor. Newsbreak slapped the headline "The Second Gentleman" on its cover. Singson promptly slapped a libel suit on Newsbreak. Because libel is a criminal offense under Philippine law, authorities arrested online editor Gemma Bagayaua in connection with the suit and threw her in jail this past March. Fortunately, she was released on bail the day after her arrest. Four other Newsbreak staffers, including Vitug, were also charged.

Singson's $2 million suit against the magazine is still pending, but Newsbreak has already taken a financial hit because of its aggressive reporting. Its full-time staff has shrunk from 11 editors and writers to just seven people. Vitug says that advertisers, especially companies regulated by the government, no longer want to be associated with the magazine because of the controversy stirred by its corruption stories. The drop in advertising revenue, coupled with poor newsstand sales, forced Newsbreak to fold its print edition in February and retreat to the Web. In the meantime, grants from international organizations such as the United Nations, the Asia Foundation, and the National Democratic Institute have enabled Newsbreak to publish occasional "special reports" for the newsstand, such as the July 16 special issue dissecting May's midterm elections.

The libel suits and the demise of Newsbreak's print version show that the Philippines -- more than two decades after the end of Marcos's dictatorship -- is still a fragile democracy, where the struggle for independent journalism remains fierce. "There's a lot of information that needs to see the light of day," says Luis Teodoro, deputy director at Manila's Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. "The tendency in a country like ours is to keep many things secret. And most of the time, those things are issues of public concern." That Newsbreak's reports on corruption have nearly cost it its existence is, ultimately, telling of how far the Philippines has yet to go.